RD Archives: Secrets of the lost galleon

BY Frank Taylor

12th Jan 2024 History

5 min read

RD Archives: Secrets of the lost galleon
From the Reader's Digest archives comes a story of the lost ship San Diego whose hold was to yield treasure more valuable than gold and jewels
Tropical heat beat down on Gilbert Fournier's cardinal-red diving suit as he slipped into the cool sea water. His mission: to follow a target line to a site 170 feet below, where sophisticated magnetometers had registered the presence of metal.
The Frenchman was part of a ten-person search team combing the sea-bed about three-quarters of a mile off the coast of Fortune Island in the Philippines for the remains of a Spanish galleon sunk on December 14, 1600. Hanging weightlessly, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the meagre light. A few seconds later waves of adrenaline shot through his body. Less than 20 inches from the lead weight anchoring his target line, Fournier saw the unmistakable outline of a ship's anchor. Taking a few photographs, he was careful not to disturb anything. Looking around, he saw long cylindrical objects, which he recognised as cannon, scattered under a protective coating of mud.
"Fournier's heart seemed to stop for a second, then start racing"
As he swam closer he could see, inscribed in clearly visible numerals, a date: 1593. Fournier's heart seemed to stop for a second, then start racing. It was a moment of pure joy.
Swimming slowly to the surface, he chafed at the mandatory decompression stop before he could climb on board the waiting catamaran, the Kaimiloa. Everyone crowded around him. Hands flying, he blurted out, "I've seen an anchor, many jars and a bronze cannon with the date 1593. We've found the San Diego!"

The discovery of the San Diego

The trail that led to the discovery of the sunken galleon on that day, April 24, 1991, had begun three years earlier with Frenchman Franck Goddio, a financier with a passion for finding and recovering lost ships. After reading of the San Diego in a history of the Philippines, Goddio set out to find the vessel's resting place.
Goddio turned to the book written by the San Diego's commander, Don Antonio de Morga, who survived the sinking and wrote the only primary source material known to exist. In this book, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, Morga says the Spanish squadron met the enemy near Miraveles, where a fierce naval battle ensued. Morga's flagship, the San Diego, grappled with the Dutch flagship, the Mauritius, captained by Admiral Oliver van Noort.
According to the book, Morga and his men boarded the Mauritius, but the Dutch drove the Spaniards back. The engagement lasted more than six hours, until the Dutch vessel caught fire. Morga had to disengage his ship from the Mauritius. But the San Diego, battered from heavy artillery pounding, took in water and sank.
Morga had many reasons to be less than candid in his report, as he tried to glorify his role and minimise his failures. Thus when Goddio and his chief researcher, Patrick Lize, began to study the document, they realised it would be of little help in finding the San Diego. In attempting to unravel Morga's disinformation, they spent three years studying archives in Madrid, Seville, Amsterdam, Vatican City, Mexico City and Manila.
"The San Diego, battered from heavy artillery pounding, took in water and sank"
They learned that the San Diego was an island-trading galleon hastily fitted out as a warship to sail against the marauding Dutch. Captained by Morga, the arrogant vice-governor of Manila, the San Diego had 450 crew, all hoping to gain glory in defending the honour of Spain and its colony. Stripping 14 cannon from Manila's fortifications, Morga installed them on the little galleon and set out to challenge Van Noort's man-of-war.
The folly of his enterprise soon became apparent. When Morga ordered the gun ports opened, sea water poured in so fast that it threatened to sink the vessel. Overloaded and probably improperly ballasted, the San Diego was too low in the water to fight. In desperation, Morga demanded that a small cannon be carried topside so it could fire at the approaching Dutchmen. It was a futile gesture. Only one ineffectual shot burst from its muzzle before disaster overtook the galleon and its landlubber commander.
Closing in for the kill, Van Noort blasted the San Diego until the sea devoured his target, sending most of its crew to the bottom. Morga claimed that he and other survivors swam for four hours before reaching Fortune Island. Other evidence found by Goddio and Lize, however, revealed that the vessel had gone down less than a mile offshore. Goddio narrowed down the probable site to a section two and a quarter by one and a half miles.
By February 1991 Goddio was ready to seek out the lost ship and, if successful, attempt to recover its contents. The ELF Foundation of France, the cultural arm of France's largest petroleum company, agreed to underwrite the cost of the expedition. Goddio equipped the Kaimiloa with sophisticated survey devices and two computers to analyse data. With its magnetometers, shipboard technicians could "see" the ocean floor on a computer printout.
On March 30, 1991, Goddio and his survey team of ten started work in the Philippines. Day after day, divers went down to investigate promising targets detected by the magnetometers. They found nothing but natural formations or recent shipwrecks. Then, when the team was beginning to wonder if they had the right area, Fournier dived to find the shipwreck just over three-quarters of a mile north-east of Fortune Island.
Ten months later, with the co-operation of the National Museum of the Philippines, the enormous recovery effort began. Again Gilbert Fournier made a dramatic discovery. On March 10, 1992, while he was removing a section of sediment with an undersea vacuum, the outline of an astrolabe began to materialise. Fournier took several photographs as he uncovered the exceptionally rare navigational instrument (a forerunner of the modern sextant) and prepared to carry it to the surface.
On board the supply boat, Fournier shared the news with Father Gabriel Casal, director of the National Museum of the Philippines, Goddio and the crew. "I couldn't believe it," Casal says. At that time there were only six known examples of pre-1600 astrolabes. Archaeologists would later say that the entire effort of the expedition was worth that one piece of nautical antiquity.
A second important find was a mariner's compass, with the glass in seemingly perfect condition. The total quantity of artefacts astounded archaeologists. When a final tally was made, the 1992-93 underwater excavation yielded 34,407 pieces. One of the greatest prizes was more than 700 pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelainware, including complete table settings. The majority of it was not chipped or even cracked.
"One of the greatest prizes was more than 700 pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelainware"
Also brought up were around 600 stoneware jars from Spain, Burma (now Myanmar), the Philippines, China, Thailand and Mexico. Some still contained hazelnuts and coconuts. Others had been filled with various items which reveal the secrets of a seaborne diet during the 1600s.
Few traditional treasures such as gold, silver and jewellery were found (among them, a gold seal, a gold coin of Asian origin, a rosary with a chain of gold and ivory beads), but many other artefacts throw light on how people lived—pieces of Manila rope, scissors, chess pieces. The inventory of the galleon was a list of household items mixed with tools of war.
Human bones, another rarity in underwater sites, were carefully hauled to the surface. They will be studied for signs of malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies and other clues about diets in the Spanish colonial period. "It will take decades to assess everything," says Father Casal, "but when the task is completed, we will have the largest 'window' in archaeological history on the Philippines' 1600s Spanish era."
Gilbert Fournier can never forget the expedition. In 22 years of diving all over the world, he has seen unbelievable sights, but none has equalled the thrill of finding the San Diego.
© 1993 Frank Taylor. Condensed from Mabuhay, in-flight magazine of the Philippine Airlines (September 9, 1993), Metro, Manila, Philippines. 
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in December 1994. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently.
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